Mention South Dakota; for many, the first thing that will come to mind is Mount Rushmore. A landmark that literally holds the faces of America. It was on our list on our recent trip to the Black Hills.
Before we left Salt Lake, we talked to the children often about this historical landmark known as Mount Rushmore. The kiddos learned about the four presidents carved into the stone and what they represented. We looked at pictures on Google, and their minds were imagining the moment they would see it in person.
We drove through Keystone and followed the road through a mountain. Near the top, we came out of a curve, and The Divine Miss M shouted, “There it is!” Energy and excitement were oozing from the back seat as Li’l Man peered over his sister and said, “Oh. My.” We demanded a better look. We entered the parking lot and climbed the steps to the viewing area.
This mountain had been here long before us. In August of 1926, a man named Gutzon Borglum was searching for a suitable site for carving. He had considered the Needles. Located south of Custer State Park. The opposition from the people in the area was too significant as they objected to the “tampering with the beauty of nature.” Not one to give up on his dream, Borglum sought a remote area, not in public view. There was no doubt in his mind “that no matter where we carved, roads would be built, and the public would find us,” he once confessed.
As the scouting party came upon the promising mountain, the man with the dream asked, “What is that called?”
The scouting guide smiled and told him, “used to be Slaughterhouse Rock and before that, Cougar Mountain–because they trapped a cat up there once, but then this city fellow came visiting, and they changed the name again.”
The scouting guide was referring to Charles Rushmore, a New York Lawyer who, in 1905, traveled to the Black Hills to check out a client’s tin mines. He, too, had asked a guide what the mountain was called. His guide told him the same as Borglum’s guide, “Slaughterhouse Rock and before that Cougar Mountain,” and added, “but we can change it. How does Mount Rushmore sound?” The name stuck.
Borglum found Mount Rushmore to be the perfect canvas for his carving piece after climbing its face of it. He had yet to decide what the carving would be. People were bickering over a monument just to Washington or exclusive to Lincoln. Everyone had an idea for a hero deserving recognition. In the end, Borglum chose four men, whose heads now take up every inch of the stone face.
The four men he chose are George Washington because he is the father of our country. Thomas Jefferson because he expanded our territory with the Louisiana Purchase and expressed our beliefs as a country as he penned the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln for preserving the Union, and Theodore Roosevelt for fulfilling the expansionist dream by linking the oceans with the Panama Canal.
All good men with good reasons. The most controversial of the four was Lincoln. To understand, one must go back to June 23, 1923, with Borglum making the first cut at Stone Mountain, Georgia. He had been commissioned to create a 20′ high bust of General Robert E. Lee on the mountain. Borglum accepted though he did tell the committee that hired him, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, “Ladies, a twenty-foot head of Lee on that mountainside would look like a postage stamp on a barn door.” The idea evolved into a frieze of Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson riding around the mountain, followed by a legion of artillery troops.
Borglum finished Lee’s head in time to unveil it on January 19, 1924, Lee’s birthday, but tension grew, and the committee found Borglum to be domineering and too much of a perfectionist. It was too much, and in March 1925, Borglum smashed his clay and plaster models, leaving Georgia for good. His work was cleared from the mountain, and nothing remains today.
So given these events, the Southerners were against “their” artist honoring a man, Lincoln, whom they viewed as a traitor.
The choice of Teddy Roosevelt brought great ridicule. Borglum and Roosevelt knew each other. Borglum had been a leader of Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party. Then there was the fact that Borglum and Roosevelt resembled one another greatly.
Borglum made his choices. He was the sculptor and had the final say.
Now he just needed money. Borglum teamed with a few South Dakota businessmen; they hoped to convince a few tycoons to underwrite the whole project. That didn’t happen.
In 1927 a monument drive was started in the schools of South Dakota, the youngsters willingly gave up their nickels, and it convinced everyone to do the same. That same year, Calvin Coolidge agreed to vacation in the Black Hills. Borglum and his committee set to work and planned a dedication ceremony for the President’s arrival. It was an elaborate scheme. They renamed Hanging Squaw Creek to Grace Coolidge Creek and stocked it with rainbow trout. They blocked the river with hidden nets so the fish could not swim away. As President Coolidge pulled out his tenth trout on his tenth try, he said, “This is either the best trout stream in the world, or I’m the best fisherman that ever was.”
The night before the dedication, they held a barbecue in Keystone with huge sides of beef and buffalo roasting over open pit fires. There was plenty of entertainment, music, dancing, and enough mountain moonshine for everyone!
Borglum hired an open-cockpit airplane the following day and flew over the summer White House, showering it with petals in honor of the First Lady.
By early evening, a crowd had gathered at the mountain as a team of horses pulled the Presidential limousine up the grade. The President stepped out, approached the speakers’ platform, and shook hands with the children before giving his speech. After the President’s speech, Borglum was lowered down the face of Mount Rushmore, and carefully, he drilled four pilot holes for the head of George Washington. The crowd cheered as Borglum waved and walked back up the mountain’s face.
Charles Rushmore, that New York Lawyer the scouting guide named the mountain after, was so embarrassed when the media approached him asking what he had done to deserve such an honor that he donated $5,000 to the cause!
Over the next fourteen years, Borglum and his crew continued to carve the face of the mountain. They met financial hardships during the great depression, and the committee clashed with Borglum’s ego like the one at Stone Mountain. There were issues as the structure took form – originally, Jefferson was started on Washington’s right, but a poorly placed charge of dynamite made the forehead slope beyond repair–Borglum blew that head off the mountain and started again on the other side. Roosevelt’s head was forced back into the rock, then met a hidden fault that forced his head even further back; the final carving ends within ten feet of the canyon that lie beyond the monument. The mountain created heavy deposits making it challenging to work with, and veins of silver run across the face of Lincoln. Despite the differences and the challenges, the carving took priority.
Borglum died in Chicago on March 6, 1941, following complications after surgery. His son, Lincoln, who had worked side by side with his father on the mountain, finished another season at Rushmore but left the monument mainly in the state of completion it had reached under his father’s direction.
Our Mount Rushmore Visit
We were in awe of Mount Rushmore and the talent that created this landmark. It was truly inspiring and gave us a reason to pause and be thankful for being American.
We enjoyed the view from the viewing deck and took a 0.6-mile walk around the loop that took us past the plaque pictured above, inside the Sculptor’s Studio, where we saw the models created by Borglum, including the Lincoln plaster mask above. From there, we walked up steps (there are 220 total, spread out over the walk) to a viewing deck directly beneath the faces. The children enjoyed a small cave and exited the cave exclaiming from inside, there is a crack where they could see the head of George Washington.
This may have been the most magical place we visited during our visit to the Black Hills. There was so much to learn at the Memorial, and the children didn’t want to leave after we had toured the area and they had taken the oath to be a Junior Ranger of Mount Rushmore. It is a place they spoke of throughout the entire trip.